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'Starting Out in the Evening'

Aging novelist, sexy grad student. Who's got the write stuff?

By Dorothy Woodend 1 Feb 2008 |

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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Lauren Ambrose as Heather Wolfe.

Andrew Wagner's film Starting Out in the Evening (based on the novel by Brian Morton) begins with a man sitting in front of typewriter. Before you can write, you must think, and that's exactly what the film's central protagonist Leonard Schiller is doing. Schiller (Frank Langella), a great American author in the mode of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, is in the twilight of his years. In his gracious apartment on the upper west side of New York, Leonard has been working on the same novel for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on, leaving him to tip tap on his ancient typewriter, believing that literature still has some meaning.

Into his quiet, decorous life comes a young wolf, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) to be exact, an insanely ambitious graduate student with designs on poor old Leonard, both his body and his art. Heather wants to write her master's thesis on Leonard's work, but she also wants to use him to vault upwards. "I want to be Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell, Joan of Arc," she says at one point. If you can resist the urge to throw up at such a remark, you might feel something almost approaching pity.

Heather for all her youthful bravado is really no match for Leonard. She just doesn't know it yet.

Ruthless artists

At first glance Starting Out appears filled with worn out clichés -- a great male artist (a.k.a. great male bastard) is beset by a parasitic sycophant female, trading on her youth and beauty. But there is more here than initially meets the eye. For all his gentility and restraint, Leonard Schiller is no push over. Like most writers, he wants his due, but the literary world has changed, and he can't even get his new novel published in this era of celebrity biographies and self-help books. What's an old lion to do when a little wolf with pert breasts and big talk of the portable Schiller comes knocking?

It takes you a while to realize in this game of cat and mouse exactly who's being played, but artists are nothing if not ruthless when it comes to their art, and creation often occasions destruction. And vice versa.

While Leonard and Heather are dancing around each other, a secondary plot involving Leonard's 40-year-old daughter Ariel (played by ropy-looking Lili Taylor) and her on-again off-again boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester) unfolds. Ariel wants to have a baby, and she's willing to do just about anything to make that happen. Casey, however, has no interest in having a child, and neither one of them is willing to compromise on their positions.

Unlike her father, who is entirely a creature of words, Ariel is a physical being. She teaches Pilates, has lots of sex with different men, and possesses no interest in books or reading. She does, however, go to see a lot of movies. More on that in moment.

The typewriter generation

Leonard may be an example of an older (fading) culture -- his principled stand against endless commercial compromise isn't even understood by the younger generation of writers -- but like many great male artists before him, he is not above using the women in his life, either to care for him or to inspire him. His dead wife, his neglected daughter, and now his greatest admirer, whose naked ambition and naked other things, helps Leonard inject some juice back into his writing. Writers use people, almost as much as they use themselves, and if a great novel comes out of it, then perhaps it's ultimately worthwhile. Despite his darker qualities, Leonard is truly the hero of the film, and you can't help but admire his implacable drive to keep going, continuing "the madness of art," as he calls it.

When Leonard explains his process to Heather, he says that you write a story to find out what happens to the characters. In order to do so, you have to follow them around for a while and hope they do something interesting. Something akin to this is also happening in the film, which makes it a much more faithful adaptation of its original form than many other cinematic reworking of books. You follow the characters around as they talk, make love, and attend literary events, waiting for something to happen.

Heather pushes Leonard to reveal himself more fully, trying to uncover the autobiographical impulse that flavoured his early work. Leonard resists, but he is no coy mistress. He lets Heather think she's shaking up his moribund world, when really something quite different is happening. He needs material, just as she needs a thesis, and this mutual usage exacts an enormous toll on both of them. It's a Faustian bargain, but as it is pointedly stated a number of times in the film, a thesis is not a book. One form is definitely subservient to the other.

Twilight of books?

It's only afterwards when I thought about it that I realized no one in the film is what he or she initially appears to be. Every character is creating a version of themselves, almost like a writer creates characters. The more interesting events are transposed into words later on, but that is a section of the story we cannot see, as it happens behind Leonard's eyes. Here is where the story ends (and begins). With a writer writing.

For all its sturm and drang, there is an elegiac quality about the film, maybe because fewer and fewer people apparently care very much about writing or writers. There has been something of a minor flurry about the death of reading, or more correctly, the ghetto-ization of reading to a small, embattled class according to writer Caleb Crain's recent essay "Twilight of Books" in The New Yorker. Doris Lessing's impassioned speech about the decline and fall of reading in first world nations made a similar point about the critical importance of books.

If it is indeed the case, that readers are declining, much like dodos or narwhals, than the character of Leonard Schiller is akin to a great white whale, a vanishing breed, something mythic passing on. It's this quality -- the death of an older generation of writers, and dimming of literature in general that gives the film a strange irony, since cinema has been touted (or blamed) for replacing the novel.

In a rebuttal to the Caleb Crain's article, a letter in a recent issue of The New Yorker stated, "It may well be that animation is the next generation's poetry and film its novels."

Now a major motion picture

I certainly hope that this is not the case. Novels and film despite their close relationship do very different things. Reading a story makes you the author of the images and feelings in your head; they are unique to you. A film, however clever and lustrous to look at, takes away something particular about a story, and replaces it with something less idiosyncratic.

When I try and remember the images in my brain from novels gone by, sometimes only the film images come back (Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf or Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester). It's difficult to summon up the versions of these characters that existed in my brain prior to their film incarnations. Sometimes it's still a better idea to read the book, instead of seeing the movie.

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